The IHF Playing Rules and Referees Commission (PRC) has released a document (with the subject title) concerning referee performance at the recent World Championships. The document addresses trends in play that complicate referee decisions and some of the controversy surrounding the Quarter-Final and Semi-Final matches involving Germany.
Notably, the PRC stated that referee performance for “both couples failed to meet our expectations, even when taking into account the huge pressures from spectators and the overall atmosphere in the Cologne arena.” For the Germany-Spain match it was noted that “while the performance in (the) quarter-final had several mistakes visible both ‘live’ and in the video analyses, these mistakes did not add up to a failure.” For the Germany-France match the after match review was more critical: “The video analyses confirmed the ‘live’ observations: there were too many mistakes, and they were clearly not divided 50-50.”
Most pointedly in responding to critics, the PRC offered the following summary: “contrary to other statements in the media, the IHF/PRC has never found the performances and the mistakes in these two matches to be equally fair to both teams. We have understanding for the disappointments of the losing teams. However, we totally object to the forms which the disappointments have taken: accusations of intentional mistakes and favoring of one team, physical aggression against a referee hours after a match, and prolonged personal attacks in the media many days after the event. This says much more about the mentality of these persons.”
The complete text of the document follows:
[b]THE REFEREE PERFORMANCE AT THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: SHOULD WE BE SATISFIED?[/b]
The heading above finishes with a “?”, not because the IHF/PRC does not have a clear opinion but because we find it reasonable that everyone who closely followed this exciting event may have his/her own opinion. Of course, being satisfied or not depends on one’ perspective: being a supporter of one of the teams, being a relaxed and neutral TV viewer, or being one of the persons directly responsible for the performances of the referees. It obviously also depends on one’s criteria and objectives.
For the IHF/PRC it was an important goal to have a homogenous overall performance (‘a common line’) from our 18 couples and a situation where the individual couples managed to maintain a relative stabile standard from match to match. In that sense we are very satisfied, but we recognize that there were a few isolated matches where it was not possible to be happy with the overall referee performances. Considering the importance and visibility of some of these matches, this affects our overall level of satisfaction. However, before I get back to some of these ‘isolated matches’, I will comment more in detail on some of the broader aspects.
We had available this time a less experienced group of referees, in terms of previous Men’s World Championships, than ever before. This was not a voluntary or careless experiment; it was a necessity because of the turnover since the 2005 Championship in Tunisia. Of the 12 couples in the final stages there, 4 have retired, and 3 were no longer considered for performance reasons. This means that 4 very experienced couples, and one more who were in Tunisia, had to be supplemented by 13 other couples. Of course, most of these couples have years of experience from Champions League and other major EHF events, but a World Championship is a different matter. It was because of this composition that ‘a common line’ was a major objective and also a major feature in our preparations over the last 6 months. In this respect we feel we were more successful than we had expected. Many of the coaches, and other experts, commented favorably on the consistency in the performances and on the job of relatively new couples at this level. Such comments came from Alfred Gislasson, Anders Dahl-Nielsen, and the leaders of the teams who were the least successful in the main round, viz. CZE and TUN.
When we say that a ‘World Championship is a different matter’, it is for a special reason. The referees must maintain a high level of concentration and consistency over 2-3 weeks, not just for one match. This is tough, and so is the awareness that absolutely everything depends on one match. In the Champions League, where the teams play ‘home and away’, and where the home team may win by 10 goals in the first match and then the other team wins by 9 or 11 goals in the next match, the focus on the importance of a referee decision is never quite so intensive and dramatic. Who or what was the reason for the combined result? And by comparison, after losing the semifinal in Cologne, the French team did not have the chance to play a return game in France a few days later!
Overall, our impression was that the referee group handled very well the intense pressure over the whole event, and that we generally had more steady performances than in the past. This impression is also matched by an unusual absence of comments or complaints regarding referees in the media (or in the ‘corridors’) during the preliminary and main rounds.
[b]Areas where we will continue to work for improvement[/b]
In the training of the referees we had focused on a number of very specific aspects, which we felt had presented difficulties over the past couple of years. When we are now beginning to prepare a teaching video from the World Championship, we are finding that the areas we had focused on in the training are in fact coming up as the main problem areas during the event. This can, of course, be seen as both good and bad. It means that we are focusing on the right areas, but it also means that we must do even more work together with the referees (also nationally and at lower levels) to improve the observations and decision-making in these areas.
First, the dramatically increased role and involvement of the pivot at the 6-meter line keeps creating problems. We know that it is difficult to observe in each case who is the player who initiates the problems and commits the first foul, even if the goal-line referee should be in a good position to see this. But we know that if the referees hesitate in situation after situation because they are not sure, this will escalate into a battle that gets out of hand. The fouls will get stronger and stronger, and in important individual situations the development will be so complex that in the end the correct decision is very difficult to find. The referees simply must improve their instinct to observe and take action early, both to stop the individual situation from becoming too complicated and to prevent the ‘fighting’ between pivot and defender from deteriorating.
Other difficulties at the 6-meter line involve the observation and decision regarding a 7-meter-throw for defending inside the goal area. Too often the decision is based on a faulty observation. The referees do not really observe the defender’s position before the collision, and the result is an excessive tendency to award 7-meter-throws. When instead such throws are awarded because of fouls, another problem arises: the defender may in fact try to ‘go for the ball’, or alternatively he uses any method available to prevent a clear shot on goal. Too often the referees fail to distinguish between these situations, and the inclination is to give a progressive punishment (in addition to the 7-meter throw) also when the defender really makes an effort to focus on the ball. This bad referee habit will certainly cause the defender to consider whether there is really any point in trying to act correctly, when the reaction from the referees is the same regardless of the methods used. Of course we do want the referees to reward good intentions from the defenders, as the methods will otherwise tend to escalate.
A separate problem at the 6-meter line involves attacks from the wing. Traditionally, a referee could expect that an attacker would try to avoid contact with the outside defender in order to get an unconstrained shot. Now it is increasingly common that the wing player instead seeks the contact, to gain momentum from the contact, to make the defender move away, or possible to gain a 7-meter throw if the clear shot is not available. The defenders will respond by anticipating and initiating the contact, perhaps even through something as dangerous as a small hip tackle (while keeping arms and legs in an innocent position), or by ‘protecting themselves’ by bending over in a way that creates another form of danger for the attacking player. The collisions are often spectacular, in some cases with real risks for injuries, and in other situations with scope for ‘Hollywood’ action. In either case, the correct decision for the referee may be difficult to find.
In many matches there are very fast and frequent counterattacks that are difficult to supervise fully, both at the ball and away from the ball. Fouls sometimes go undetected. Difficult situations also arise when a defender is trying to chase a counterattacking opponent, with different objectives in mind. Sometimes the objective is to try to ‘steal’ the ball or simply to distract the attacker. But often it involves body contact intended to force the attacker in a gently way to change path or angle, or it involves a ‘hidden’ small push that is intended to affect body control and shooting ability. Even a small push may be very dangerous: the player may be able to jump and shoot, but the extra impulse may cause a defense-less hard landing on the floor. Such behaviors must be better detected by the referees.
A final problem area involves those matches where one or both teams systematically use quick throw-offs. Regardless of the position chosen by the referee, and regardless of the complexity of the situation (with many players of both teams within the field of vision), the referee must have such an overview so that players cannot ‘steal’ several meters and gain unfair advantages, sometimes even leading to scoring opportunities or desperate fouls. The observation must be so clear that the referee has full confidence in a whistle signal that calls the guilty players back, even if he feels the pressure to ‘let it go’.
By contrast, we are more happy with the handling of ‘passive play,’ especially the attention to tactical situations where passive intentions must be suspected. Similarly, we are satisfied with the attentions to technical faults and the discipline in keeping defenders from systematically working inside the goal area.
The ‘progressive’ line tended to match the actions on the court, both in individual matches and for the Championship as a whole. There is a general impression that matches generally remained under control, partly because teams did not tend to utilize excessive methods, so we feel this is an area of improvement since 2005. However, we will continue to admonish referees to be more prepared to use ‘direct’ 2-minute suspensions, or even ‘red cards’, when this is warranted early in the match, instead of getting into the routine of first giving out all the ‘yellow cards’ available.
[b]Some matches with special problems[/b]
It is natural that additional attention is given to matches where the host team is playing, where there are loud and one-sided (but sportsmanlike) spectators creating a high level of tension, and where there is a sense that the opponents have a clear disadvantage. This may be exacerbated by issues not at all related to refereeing, such a scheduling, the impossibility for supporters of Germany’s opponents to find tickets etc. All in all, the impression was that some teams felt that ‘the whole world was against them’, already before the match started. Naturally, this does not make the situation of the referees any easier. If there is a bad or questionable referee decision, immediately the team seems to get confirmation that their sense of ‘pre-determination’ is justified.
The first match that created controversy was GER-SLO at the beginning of the Main Round. Let me immediately dismiss all accusations from that match as being completely unwarranted. I was present at the match and, together with IHF colleagues, spent many night hours reviewing the match over and over. The IHF/PRC verdict is that the referee performance was acceptable, with a small number of clear mistake but generally without any tendencies to problems. Moreover, the majority of these mistakes went in favor of the complaining SLO team, so there was absolutely no bias that helped the German team win this match!
Going back to the situation mentioned earlier, with only 4 strongly experienced couples, one of which failed us this time in the preliminary and main rounds, we in PRC were shocked to find on the night of the last matches in the main round that all the teams of the remaining top 3 referees couples (ESP, FRA, GER) would be playing in the same half in Cologne. This was maximum bad luck for us, in a not so flexible situation… It meant that 2 other couples needed to be selected, for the German quarter-final (and a possible semi-final). For the quarter-final we selected the strongest performing couple from the Main Round group where Germany had not played. For a possible semi-final we had in mind the strongest performing couple from the Main Round in Halle/Dortmund, where they had shown courage and received praise in the only match that Germany lost. We also remembered their outstanding semi-final performance in the Women’s WCh one year ago.
Without any attempt at downplaying criticism or making the performances sound better than they were, I can simply say that both couples failed to meet our expectations, even when taking into account the huge pressures from spectators and the overall atmosphere in the Cologne arena (a propaganda for handball, but a major challenge for the referees).
However, while the performance in quarter-final had several mistakes visible both ‘live’ and in the video analyses, these mistakes did not add up to a failure. The problem mainly was the timing of some of these mistakes: after a decision on one side in one situation, there soon came a different decision in a similar situation on the other side, and then there were two inexplicable decisions at the final stage of the match. It is understandable that, taken together, this would be seen by one side as favoring the other, when the mistakes mostly went in the same direction.
In the semi-final there were relatively more mistakes. First the referees did not grab control in the beginning, and moreover they showed hesitation in some early decisions. This undermined their respect, when later on the mistakes were appearing. The video analyses confirmed the ‘live’ observations: there were too many mistakes, and they were clearly not divided 50-50. Ironically, much of this might have been forgotten if France had been given a chance to score and equalize in the final seconds of the 2nd overtime.
In summary, contrary to other statements in the media, the IHF/PRC has never found the performances and the mistakes in these two matches to be equally fair to both teams. We have understanding for the disappointments of the losing teams. However, we totally object to the forms which the disappointments have taken: accusations of intentional mistakes and favoring of one team, physical aggression against a referee hours after a match, and prolonged personal attacks in the media many days after the event. This says much more about the mentality of these persons.
From the IHF/PRC we have zero tolerance for any tendencies towards bias, and the referees know that very well. We trust all of them in this respect. We and they know that we may tolerate their performances and mistakes as long as they are reasonable in relation to the difficulties of a match; but biased refereeing means that they are out. In this regard, there have been incorrect and harmful statements in the media regarding the referees in the quarterfinal and semi-finals. It was reported that they had been sent home as a punishment. The real reason was that it was pre-determined that for the final weekend in Cologne we would only keep the referees needed for those 4 matches. Not surprisingly, we did not envisage using the two couples for teams that they had just had or for key matches involving teams from other Scandinavian countries.
Looking ahead, it is clear that we must focus even more on having our referees mentally prepared for the kind of pressure they encountered in Cologne. This is easier said than done, as there is really no better preparation available than simply doing such games. But we must use other methods available to increase mental toughness, ability to perform under pressure, and to identify those couples who best handle such situations.
Finally, there is another aspect which we in IHF/PRC did not feel show what we (and the regulations) intend, and this concerned behavior on the benches. For the most part, the discipline was much better than in the past, but in some matches the behavior went too far, either in terms of protests or provocation, or in terms of undisciplined support of one’s own team. We want to give the referees stronger support through more preventive action from the table, but internal differences in philosophies within the IHF regarding the distribution of responsibilities led to unintended inconsistencies and excessive tolerance. This should not be seen as model for national competition.